I Stopped Wearing Deodorant for a Month. Here's What Happened.
Of course it was the hottest summer in recorded history when I decided to stop wearing deodorant for a month. A summer when the heat index reached 106 degrees and every step made you feel like you were slowly sinking into the crater of an active volcano.
I don't know why I thought a simple amendment to my morning routine wouldn't affect me. I don't know why I believed that my natural musk would override the angry bacteria living on my skin, allowing my scent to replicate that of a cookie factory. But I did, and my confidence turned out to be at least partially misguided. Here was my month without deodorant.
First, why would anyone want to do this?
Woodstock isn't right around the corner, so why in hot, sweaty hell would I want to stew in my own juices during summer?
Well, although they make you smell like "Mountain Breeze," many conventional deodorants and antiperspirants contain aluminum and chemicals that aren't all that great for you. So it's a tough choice: smear potentially harmful chemicals directly over your lymph nodes, or potentially emit odors reminiscent of garbage left on a Manhattan street corner too long. No one said modern life was easy.
Week 1: New York City summer's got nothing on my pits
The challenge was first presented to me at the end of July, a relatively quiet time devoid of anniversaries, free from holidays, and totally without conflict… except for a wedding in Arizona that would require a six-hour plane ride in close quarters with my girlfriend.
The first day, like the first day of any challenge, went swimmingly. Despite the frantic text messages from my girlfriend pleading with me to forego the experiment -- and lose the accompanying money (!!!) I'd be paid for doing this -- I decided to carry on, take a shower, put on a shirt, and go to work. It's also worth mentioning that I had started a new job literally (and I mean literally literally) a day before I was told to stop wearing deodorant, which I thought would really add a lot to the experience and potentially gross out some strangers.
Despite the amount of sweat I was leaking out of my body, I found that I didn't smell bad… I didn't really smell like anything.
That first week was hot -- New York City hot, the kind of hot where it feels like you're walking in molasses and the rats take shelter in the shadows of melting pigeons. Cockiness took hold of me as I rode a crowded elevator up to my new office. A preliminary olfactory survey of armpits proved that my initial hypothesis about my scent was correct: I emitted a mostly benign scent. Despite the amount of sweat I was leaking out of my body, I found that I didn't smell bad… I didn't really smell like anything.
Of the notable interactions I had with people that first week, it was only my girlfriend -- with whom I live, by the way -- who noticed a change in my odor. I'd like to think that she was expecting me to smell bad, which fueled her comment that I "smelled fucking awful," but she's also made consistent claims of being a "super-taster" and "super-smeller."
Knowing that our burning, molten rat-hiding-in-pigeon-shadow-style love would forever keep us from smelling each other without bias, I gently pushed her opinion aside and kept believing I was born smelling nice. Then came week two.
Week 2: Oh, the smells you can smell!
I remember sending an email to my editor early in week two, a boastful interaction that went something like this:
Me: Why did I agree to an article about not wearing deodorant during the hottest summer of my goddamn life.
Editor: YESSSSSSS. So good. Glad to hear you're a sweaty mess, though hopefully you will learn something about yourself in the process. Like, you don't smell that bad?
Me: I actually thought I'd smell a lot worse, but I'm also relatively comfortable with the natural smell that emanates off my bod. I'm getting to know the real me.
Editor: I told you! You gotta get all those sweet pheromones flowing. You'll unlock the mysteries of the universe, or something like that.
The run, plus the humidity, along with the poor choice of wearing a henley during a heat wave, helped me realize that I fucking stank.
I specifically remember this conversation, because it took place a day before I realized that I did NOT, in fact, feel "relatively comfortable with the natural smell" that was emanating off my body. This came to my attention by way of an ill-advised afternoon run.
I'm not the kind of guy who runs that often; I have flat feet and used to smoke, so running for an extended amount of time makes me sore and depressed. But I went on a 3.4-mile run around Prospect Park and met up with some friends afterwards for brunch.
Every belief I had about myself and the naturally sweet sweat glands evolution had gifted me went out the window -- funny, because my actual stench did everything but go out the window. The run, plus the humidity, along with the poor choice of wearing a henley during a heat wave, helped me realize that I fucking stank.
Did anyone notice? Yes, everyone noticed.
I got whiffs of it on the train ride to Park Slope… a soft, yet pervasive odor that smelled something along the lines of old popcorn, Fritos, and this $9 bottle of cologne I bought at Walgreens when I was 16. I don't know if there's something anatomically different between regular sweat and post-workout sweat, but whatever it is, it's bad.
This odor stained everything it touched, like when you spill milk in the back of a car and it takes weeks for the smell to come out. My shirt reeked, my skin smelled, and I couldn't stop sweating.
Did anyone notice? Yes, everyone noticed. I soon learned that over-explaining why you smell bad to your friends will only make you more self-conscious, which in turn will only make you sweat more, which will only make you smellier. I consider week two to be the smelliest I've ever smelled. So that's an achievement in itself!
Week 3: The stench takes a turn for the better
I spent the rest of week two trying to exert the least amount of energy possible. I didn't run and I didn't eat garlic -- I don't know if eating garlic actually makes you smell worse, so I cut it out just to be safe.
Week three -- the week of August 15th -- was my most successful chunk of time during this whole experiment. It was the week when I learned to hack, as the kids say, my scent and find ways to make up for my lack of deodorant.
One thing I learned to be true was that I am not an especially sweaty person… only extreme exercise or total embarrassment make me sweat. I laid off both of those after the unpleasantness of the preceding week.
Next, I spent a lot of time in the shower. I decided to finally use the scores of tiny soap samples I'd been sent from subscription box services, in an attempt to infuse my body with something nice-smelling. On top of that, I took the extra precaution of using floral fabric softener when washing my clothes to combat any potential stink-waves with flowery artificial goodness baked right into my white T-shirts.
Not wearing deodorant can really make a person feel bad about themselves and ruin the day of anyone within close proximity.
It's hard to will yourself to stay dry, let alone stop sweating more when the proverbial seal's been broken. In week three, I often found myself darting to any bathroom in the vicinity to dab my armpits with damp paper towels and flush my face with water. I also learned that the only source of bad smell in my body came from my armpits. Also, my butt, I assume.
My paranoia began to rise with every pair of flared nostrils and each set of pursed lips surrounding me, which led me to the following insight: not wearing deodorant can really make a person feel bad about themselves and ruin the day of anyone within close proximity.
I thought back to the email I had sent my editor and spent the last few days of week three walking around in a low-level panic attack.
Week 4: Praying for the day I could wear deodorant again
In a time period I'd like to call WEEK FOUR: THE RECKONING, I (im)patiently waited out the last few days of going without my trusty Speed Stick/cologne combination and spent a lot of time on Amazon. I online shop when I'm anxious, and the fact that I had a wedding coming up that would require me to be in close -- really close -- quarters with my girlfriend had me adding the most unimportant purchases to my queue.
My moment of zen came to me in the middle of a Sephora.
Frankly, the closing days before the closing days of an experiment like this are never super exciting. I exiled myself from my co-workers, sat far away from my girlfriend on the couch whenever we watched TV, and killed a whole field of artificial flowers in the obsessive washing of my clothes. Seriously, I cannot thank my laundromat enough for managing to turn me into an air freshener.
My moment of zen, so to speak, came to me in the middle of a Sephora. I promised myself I'd buy a new cologne (while refraining from actually trying any on) as a congratulatory gift for letting myself go for a month. What I hoped would be a brief visit turned into something along the lines of a beautiful sonnet.
A woman approached me and asked me if I needed help choosing a cologne. I could've burst into tears right there. I spent at least half an hour sampling scents with her. She would spritz a piece of paper, hold it up to my nose, and ask me what I thought. It was like Regarding Henry, with Harrison Ford, where he gets shot in the head, loses his memory, and has to learn how to live again. Every single scent felt as though I were smelling it for the first time. Every spritz sent me into a world of olfactory delight as I picked out hints of cedar, tobacco, pepper, and whatever other bullshit people put in cologne.
I ended up buying a $90 bottle of cologne from Sephora that day. And I have the receipt to prove it.
The final two days of the experiment were a blur. I flew to Arizona, which by that point wasn't a big deal because my girlfriend had gotten used to my smell, and I doused myself in cologne when my 30 days were up.
But did I learn anything?
There aren't too many people interested in the ramblings of a man who loved the way he smelled after spending 30 days being stinky, I imagine… but I'll leave you with this little nugget of truth: I fucking love smelling good.
Truly, there was no better feeling than watching my friends get married while a fragrant, incredible odor wafted from my body. Blame it on my generalized anxiety disorder, but every muscle in my body started to relax knowing I smelled good.
Above all, this experiment gave me a heaping dose of reality. I am not a magical being who can evade nature, I am not powerful enough to control my own odor, I am a 30-year-old man who smells like old popcorn, Fritos, and discount cologne when he sweats too much.
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